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‘Unbroken: Path to Redemption’ Film Review: Low-Budget Sequel Oversells Its Message

This in-name-only follow-up to Angelina Jolie’s biopic accentuates the conversion narrative, pushing racism and slamming psychiatry along the way

Last Updated: September 13, 2018 @ 3:16 PM

Gratuitously prolific director Harold Cronk keeps cranking them out. Fascinated by supposedly undamaged people who turn out to be spiritually shattered given the absence of religious submissiveness in their lives, this month alone he’s behind two faith-based releases sporting such a premise: last week’s” God Bless the Broken Road,” and now “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.”

Both follow an individual’s transformation from sinfully reproaching God to realizing their woes are punishment for straying away from Him.

Produced with meager resources, “Path to Redemption” sneakily professes itself as a sort-of sequel to Angelina Jolie’s 2014 sophomore directorial effort “Unbroken,” even though they don’t share any cast members, below-the-line crew, or screenwriters. Most importantly, they are eons apart in storytelling dexterity, technical quality, and tone. Jolie’s feature was far from glorious and earned her mixed reviews, but it’s nonetheless an incomparably superior exercise in period filmmaking.

The bond between the two films is limited to having Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction literary work “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” as a mutual source material in telling two separate parts of POW and Olympian Louis Zamperini’s story.

Jolie’s Oscar-nominated first chapter was concerned with the 47 days the resilient war hero spent floating on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean and the subsequent years he endured in a Japanese prison camp until the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the unofficial follow-up picks up the tale once Zamperini is back on U.S. soil and struggling to adjust to his civilian reality in Torrance, California, with his Italian-American family. TV’s Sam Hunt (“Empire,” “Chicago P.D.”) assumes the classically virile lead role left vacant by Brit actor Jack O’Connell.

Asked to exploit his popularity to sell war bonds, Zamperini goes on tour to galvanize the citizenry into displaying patriotism. Yet, underneath his strapping façade, the former fighter is drowning in profound suffering, abusing alcohol to cope with his demons. Nightmares and horrific visions haunt him as consequence of PTSD, but he dismisses these as manageable nuisances.

Taking a break from entertaining audiences on the road, Zamperini meets high-spirited Cynthia Applewhite (Merritt Patterson, “The Royals”), and within a few days begs her to marry him. Quickly after, she gives birth to their firstborn even as Zamperini’s mental instability and addiction worsen. Cynthia, a Christian, strives to take her husband to church, but he refuses via explosive statements like “God is my enemy.” Such fury is not unfounded, considering he almost died at sea and went on to be tortured for two years. If anyone had sufficient arguments to question a higher power, it was Zamperini.

But, of course, this wouldn’t be a Cronk picture if the core thesis weren’t that we are responsible for our own torments when we don’t comply with Evangelicalism. In time, and at the end of his (you guessed it) path to redemption, Zamperini walks under a tent in Downtown Los Angeles to listen to preacher Billy Graham (played by his grandson Will Graham).

Held to a higher standard of honesty than most of Cronk’s output because it’s tethered to a true story, “Path to Redemption” might stand as his least loathsome cinematic venture yet. It no doubt helps that he didn’t write it. Penned by Richard Friedenberg (“A River Runs Through It”) and Ken Hixon (“Welcome to the Rileys”), the text is not as blatant in communicating Cronk’s specific brand of proselytizing.

Tacitly, the drama attacks Catholicism through Pete (Bobby Campo, MTV’s “Scream”), Zamperini’s older brother, and his inability to help him recover in spite of good intentions. The rest of the Zamperini family, all Catholic, is rarely seen. Divorce is also pointedly addressed as an egregious vice, and Cynthia makes sure we know that.

Still, perhaps the most dangerous rhetoric is directed towards mental health professionals. When Zamperini is referred to a therapist for real treatment, the character brushes it off, and the narrative implies that this course of action would be useless since it’s his soul that’s aching.

Zamperini’s hallucinations, allegedly triggered by memories of his ruthless Japanese captor Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka “The Bird,” represent the film’s most inexcusable insensitivity. In addition to piling on the racial slurs in reference to Japanese nationals (with the excuse of historical accuracy), the depiction of Watanabe is offensive and ridiculous. Laughing manically as he beats the drunken protagonist, the rendition is cartoonish at best. It’s disheartening to see actors of Asian descent, in this case David Sakurai (“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald”), having to take on jobs that perpetuate hatred.

Zoran Popovic’s uninspired cinematography, paired with barely credible production design, give “Path to Redemption” the aesthetic feel of a low-budget reenactment segment in a basic cable history show. The performances operate at about the same level; no one gets to shine beyond over-acting during a few emotionally charged scenes. In their defense, we must reiterate that Cronk and colleagues are not in the business of artistic excellence; they’re out to sell their version of salvation by the bucket, as cheaply as possible.